What I Have Been Watching, December 2010

Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – There is something about Errol Morris’ directing that makes his films irresistible to me, something that enables him to elicit from the people he interviews a depth and a range of personality that other documentarians rarely if ever reach. His subjects, far more often than not, appear as full fledged characters, as people so full of idiosyncrasy and personality that the hardly seem believable. This film, his first, is no exception. There are characters, even relatively minor ones, who appear so vividly that I doubt I will ever be able to rid myself of them. His films seem less to explore a particular story or a particular person and more to use these things as the occasions to make a study of human nature in all its variety. This film is a marvelous example of his approach, and I recommend it very, very highly.

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York – This is a difficult and elusive film in many ways, but I think that one of the keys to thinking through it is to take seriously the allusion that one of its characters makes to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, because I feel that both the film and the book orient themselves in a similar way in relation to reality and to the cultures in which they were created. They both employ a kind of mundane surrealism to explore the ways that our culture alienates us from ourselves, Kafka focusing on the influence of bureaucracy and legality and policing, and Kaufman focusing on the influence of our culture’s pervasive sense of isolation, neurosis, hypochondria, and self obsession. Even the endings are remarkably parallel, both heroes dying almost alone, accompanied only by virtual strangers, both still trying desperately, even until the end, to make sense of the lives that they have lived and the circumstances that have brought them to their deaths. The difference, I think, is that Kaufman’s hero dies naturally in the arms of a woman who cares about him, even if only very tangentially, a woman whose life he has even acted for a time, while Kafka’s hero is summarily executed by agents of an anonymous and uncaring judicial bureaucracy. There is a little hope in Kaufman, in other words, though it is a very little hope indeed.

David Shapiro’s Keep the River on Your Right – This film is as odd and as endearing and, well, as creepy as the man whose life it tells. Tobias Schneebaum is an intelligent and fascinating man, and his story is almost too strange to be true, but there is something about the way that he relates to the tribal peoples with whom he has lived over the years that seems to border on obsession or fetish, something that is not quite whole or balanced. The film is not less interesting for the reason, however, and it is well worth watching.

Hector Cruz Sandoval’s Kordavision – This film is about memory and retrospective and nostalgia. It is constantly recalling the earlier life of its protagonist, Korda, the famous photographer of the Cuban revolution, but even more, it is also constantly recalling the revolution itself, through the accounts of Korda and other photographers, through Sandoval’s contextual material, and through Castro himself. In doing so, it seeks to retell the revolution to an American audience in a way that might overturn longstanding misconceptions, and I think that it succeeds in this respect, at least to some extent, but its very success in telling Cuba’s past makes all the more obvious the uncertainty of Cuba’s present. Korda and his fellow photographers and even Castro himself are all so obviously playing the role of old men reminiscing about an earlier and a better time, so obviously living in a time that has long ago passed, and there is no sense that their roles are being taken on by those who are younger and more virile. The film’s effect, therefore, is truly nostalgic, a celebration of the past that can only ever figure the present in terms of loss.

Peter Mettler’s Petropolis – Because this film employs exclusively aerial shots and takes as its subject a massive ecological disaster, it is very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, though without Herzog himself narrating chunks from the book Revelations in his ominous German accent. The film itself is primarily an aesthetic object rather than a film essay and provides only minimal information about the Alberta tar sands (though there is much more information in the extras), and I would say that the film suffers from some indecision in this question of whether to be aesthetic or informational. In my opinion, it needed either to be more fully aesthetic in its aims, as Lessons of Darkness is, leaving aside entirely the contextual subtitles at the beginning and the narrative voiceover at the end, or it needed to be more fully informative, fleshing out the subtitles and the voiceover to make them into useful context for the film rather than insufficient afterthoughts. In the end, however, the strength of the film is its cinematography, which is nothing short of amazing, and which will in itself certainly be worth any money that you might spend on a rental.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon – I am still not sure that I have a real grasp on this film, though I have been talking about it with anyone who was willing for the better part of a week. The final crisis of the story is meant to be obscure, I think, and I can readily accept this, but I am not even certain of the reason for its obscurity, and I am also confused about the ambiguous but persistent links between the film’s primary story and the larger story of Germany entering into the First World War. That being said, the acting and the cinematography and the pacing are superb, and I would encourage you to see it, even if only for the chance that you might help me to understand it better.

Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate – This film is an adaption of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, which I reviewed only very recently. Polansky takes my recommendations and removes one of its two storylines, and he follows this storyline fairly closely for the first part of the film, deviating only very significantly in its latter stages. It is precisely in these latter stages that the film breaks down, however. The dynamic between the hero and the young woman who embodies the devil never achieves the complexity that it does in the book, and it falls apart almost entirely at the end of the film. Much of the film is like this. It fails to capture the tone that makes the book so enjoyable and then hurries to an unsatisfying end. I did not find much to enjoy in it.

  1. Ninth Gate presented so many audience expectancy issues- there is really never any clear cutting indication that woman is in fact ‘the devil’, and by the end when they have fornicate-alforno, you’re left asking ‘WTF?’ It doesn’t mean anything at that point, esp. with the dissatisfaction, if you want to consider that the woman is ‘Big Red’, that she is slightly non compelling and rather impotent as a being- her power consists of what- sex appeal, and sex appeal alone? By the end, all the mystery and creepiness is replaced with ‘So the danger of Satanism is VD?’ The existentialism in the old rich woman’s discourse about how she fell in love with the devil, that is priceless and frightening.

  2. John Jantunen said:


    It is unfortunate that you did not enjoy The Ninth Gate. I suspect, perhaps, that it might have to do with the fact that, apparently, you did not take my advice and watch the movie before you read the book. What I have taken away from the film during my three views is, I thought, that it’s a rather clever homage to the art of reading. It is about the devil as a literary device who wants a reader that can appreciate, as it were, her. The mystery that is not a who done it but a how do your read it. The central character solves the mystery not by his deductive reasoning skill but be enbodying the perfect reader; one who brings the utmost seriousness and commitment to the endeavour, coupled with the sum total of his life expereince. At the conclusion, he walks into the book, which for any reader, I suspect, would indeed be the perfect ending (as I saw it myself).

    As to Synedoche, NY, I am glad you appreciated it more sufficiently. As I mentioned to you earlier, its genius lies in how it takes a very simple story (the main narrative in almost all of Woody Allen’s films as it were) and makes it unnecessesarily complex to serve the rather skewed ego of the main character, who believes himself, like some many of us do, as alot more interesting than he really is. Aside from being a wonderful allegory about how we let things (our lives, our world) spiral out of control to suit our own vanity, it’s quite possibley the best screenplay ever to be written on American soil (by Hollywood’s best screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman).

  3. d said:

    I saw ‘The White Ribbon’ the other week and saw ‘Synecdoche New York’ for the second time a bit before that.

    ‘Synecdoche’ was a dark but hilarious movie. ‘The White Ribbon’ was just terrifying. When I watched ‘The White Ribbon’, I kept thinking – “these are the children who grew up to be Nazis”.

  4. John,

    Though I admit that there were some things to like in Ninth Gate, I thought the whole ending was just a little ridiculous, up and until he walks into the book/ninth gate, at which point it became merely cliche.

    You and I have talked about Synecdoche enough to know how much we bot thought of it.

  5. d,

    I like this idea, and I think that it goes some way to answering my questions about the relation between the local plot and the beginning of World War I, where the film is suggesting that a highly repressive, abusive, patriarchal society is what produces the generation who will embrace Nazism. Read in this way, the film locates the origins of Nazism well before the repressive treaty that is traditionally thought to be the source for the rise of National Socialism. Not that the one theory would necessarily supplant the other, but it is an interesting supposition.

  6. John Jantunen said:

    I resist the interpretation that suggests that Haneke is making a statement about the rise of National Socialism in Germany. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that making this connection defeats the entire purpose of the film. Haneke is never satisfied with pat answers, simple notions of cause and effect, he is much more interested in revealing how we, as audience memebers and as citizens, are complicit in the terrible things we do to each other (and watch done to each other sometimes in his own films) and how the true consequence of our complicity is that we will never been able to fully engage in the discussion, much less reach a resolution, as to why such things happen. This is why he leaves so many questions unanswered, he is saying that we do not want to actually seek the answers, that we allow gaps to exist in our reasoning so that we will never have to face the full extent of our own crimes. Nazis have long been the scapegoats of escapist film (why hasn’t anyone made a film about where the Nazis got their money from – western industrialists – and for that matter, why don’t the history books teach our children that we refused sanctuary for Jews fleeing Germany while the concetration camps were being built and doubly for that matter why do we, for the most part, neglect our own holocaust that has seen the near extermination of North and South American indigenous populations that has been progressing steadily for five hundred years or so.) Haneke refuses to allow us this easy way out. Much of the “evil” that transpires in The White Ribbon is the “evil” that we live with and tolerate everyday. It is the “evil’ of parents refusing to see how deeply their actions affect their children, whether because they’re working too much and thus abandoning them to an institutional upringing and a peer eduction (just like in the film), saying that it’s the way it has to be, or because we are so used to compartmentalizing our traumas into easily recognizable pardigms that we can’t see outside the way the media (a refelction of ourselves created by people just like us) reduces complex problems to simple polarisations (victim vs criminal, is our favourite although economy versus the environment is gaining ground everyday) and thus can pretend that we are ignorant of their true, sociallly derived contexts (Democrcy Now on NPR and Harper’s Magazine are two notable exceptions which try to contextualise. I wish I could say the CBC is too but I can’t). Gabor Mathe, a Canadian physician and writer, has written extensively on what modern parenting does to our children (In Hold Onto You Kids: Why Parents Matter specifically) and I would advise anyone who has watched The White Ribbon and who thinks that it is simply about kids who will grow into Nazis to take a look (unless of course you are suggesting that we are creating/have created a breed of future Nazis which certainly falls in line with the sentiments expressed not only in this film but in many of Haneke’s previous films as well. See: Benny’s Video and Funny Games in particular).

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